By now, trade trails knew of many missionaries and the creak of saddle under redcoat on lonely North West Mounted Police patrols. Knew, too, the scuff of packhorse hoofs as geological surveyors scouted the area for its rich potential, their reports throwing light on the great, empty silent land lying in “the fertile belt” – a term to prove a lodestone alike to settler and capitalist.
In 1908 the first Roman Catholic mission had been removed log by log from Lake Saskatoon and rebuilt on Bear Creek across “la grande prairie”, south from Squatters J.E. Germain and G.L. Bredin. Legislators were listening with growing interest to reports of expeditions and the phrase “fertile belt” was kindling a new political concept. Eastern financiers were charting proposed rail extensions into the almost legendary Peace River country northwest of Edmonton and a thin trickle of settlers was already seeping across the prairie. Pelts and bibles were yielding to axes and plows. The era of settlement had begun.
Two years before, on February 28, 1906, Mrs. H.B. Clifford and her husband, had settled in the Flying Shot area of the Grande Prairie country, and the following year bore the first white child in the region. At that time a log building knows as the “Bredin Hotel”, and the Catholic mission were the only buildings on the present site. The Christmas dinner of 1907 was attended by all the white residents of this district — eleven persons.
Their homestead buildings by 1908 housed the first NWMP post where Judge Noel of Edmonton presided over the first district court and where Rev. Murdoch Johnston held the first Protestant (Anglican) service.
So great was interest in the Grande Prairie country that Walter F. McFarlane, Dominion Land Surveyor, was sent to lay out townships, sections and quarter sections in February 1909. Later that year Rev. Alexander Forbes arrived with plans for establishing the first Protestant church and a hospital.
By 1910 a banner proclaiming “Grande Prairie City” drew boom-bent pioneers to the Edmonton office of the newly incorporated Argonaut Co. Ltd. Here Lawyer W.A. Rae, politician and persuasive promoter, displayed his organization’s map of the new “city” named for ‘la grande prairie’. The map was complete with streets and avenues along Bear Creek, although as yet only a handful of surveyor stakes teased the hopeful with promise of a future railroad. That was the year Mr. and Mrs. Forbes set up their first temporary “hospital” on the Clifford place and the year when the Presbyterian minister conducted Sunday services in the cabin of Smith & Sons.
Argonaut President Alphaeus Patterson’s son Jack O. arrived over the long Athabasca Trail with his family early in 1911 and established the first post office. Mail was distributed from his caboose on the unsurveyed prairie just beyond mapped-out blocks of the city. He was located where the Corner Coffee Shop later became a long-time landmark on the northeast corner of Richmond Avenue and 100 Street.
That summer Mr. Patterson, Sr. and family joined him, to erect the first store building on the survey, locating on the northwest corner of today’s intersection where Central Jewelers stands.
By July 15, 1911 homesteaders eager to file waited at dawn at the townsite for the doors of the newly established Land Office to open.
That fall, Patterson & Son’s store accommodated William Innes who opened the region’s first bank, sharing floor space with groceries, kerosene, tobacco and hardware as well as the post office.
About this time logs for a church were hauled to the east bank of Bear Creek and on October 11, 1911 McQueen’s Presbyterian Church was dedicated.
By year’s end W.L. Caldwell as manager of Selkirk Trading Co. arrived to erect a temporary building near today’s Ludbrook Store, while his partner Jack McAulay, fur trader, bargained over pelts in a smaller structure next door.
The next year saw Grande Prairie School District 2357 established. Salmond’s Hotel was catering to incoming settlers as were Tissington and Squires and the Campbell Bensons. The hamlet’s first child was born to Mrs. J. J. E. Clarke, wife of the land agent and the sound of hammers and saws played a busy obbligato to rapidly growing community.
By the new year, I.V. Macklin was conducting the first school of 13 pupils, his contract extending from January 1 – June 30, 1913 at $60 a month. The little unfinished frame buildings were erected on the site of today’s Beaver Lumber Co. On March 25 W.C. Pratt rolled off Vol. 1, No. 1 of the Grande Prairie Herald. The enlarged Selkirk Trading Co. store was now competing with other merchants for Edson Trail settlers’ patronage and franchise was granted to a private company for a telephone line extended from the larger village of Lake Saskatoon.
Now grown to a hamlet of 50 souls, Grande Prairie was elevated to village status, holding its first council session on June 15, 1914 with J. B. Taft as Reeve. Law and order was dispensed from the new NWMP barracks built where Macleod’s store stands today and that year Christ Church (Anglican) was erected. That June also, the Kathryn Pretite [?] Hospital was opened. The Patterson & Son store had changed hands and now served as the Immigration Hall for incoming pioneers.
It was also in the year 1914 that the citizens discussed forming a local Board of Trade. As the Herald editorialized, “we are, as a village, fast shedding our youthful appearance. Our public business affairs and responsibilities are each month becoming greater. Therefore, it is only proper that our affairs should be handled by [those] more directly interested in the town than the country at large.”
The year 1915 saw the organization of the fire brigade. The first electric light plant was installed in Voz’s flourmill in Bear Creek valley and Mr. Justice Beck arrived to preside over the first provincial Supreme Court session north of Edmonton.
On October 28, 1915, the first Board of Trade was officially organized with a treasury of $100. At a meeting in the Club Hall the first officers were elected: Dan Minchin (President), William Innes (Vice-President) and A. McEachern (Secretary-Treasurer). Membership dues were assessed at $2.00 per year and 26 businessmen signed up.
On March 25, 1916 excited villagers, joined by cheering folk from miles around, forgot the cold and snow as the first Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia train steamed to a halt over new-laid tracks that ended at Grande Prairie. Advent of the railway spurred development to an even faster pace. By 1917 “Montrose”, named for Mrs. Forbes’ girlhood home in Scotland and built on the Forbes homestead, was opened — the first two-storey school and largest public buildings north of Edmonton. Its bricks were produced in the kilns at the Dalen brickyard south of the village.
Population now having increased to 1,040, Grande Prairie achieved town status on March 15, 1919. The last village Reeve, R.L. Michaelis, continued in office for a few weeks until the civic election saw G.A. James named Mayor. By 1920 council sessions were being held in a new town hall which shared space with the fire department.
On April 15, 1919 incorporation papers for the Grande Prairie Board of Trade and Chamber of Commerce were filed and on May 3, 1919 the body was duly incorporated. Town secretary John H.E. Fitzallen was elected Secretary and John E. Thomson — hardware merchant — its President. On May 23, 1952 the name was again changed and re-incorporated as the Grande Prairie Chamber of Commerce. The pace of development during that first decade of progress — 1910-1920 — quickened as the town grew and succeeding Mayors and their Councils set new goals of service and expansion.
A little more than four decades after convening the first village council, Grande Prairie was elevated to city status, incorporated as such January 1, 1958. Celebrations hailing the birth of the province’s newest and most northern Alberta City began from the steps of Edmonton’s Legislative Building on February 5, 1958. A replica of the city charter was handed to Henry McCullough, long-time northern game guide who re-enacted pioneer days by making the nine-day trip on horseback. He returned to Grande Prairie to be met at the courthouse by a crowd of some 12,000 who witnessed the charter turned over to Mayor J.C. Mackie.
When the first city election was held a short time later, Mr. Mackie was succeeded by George M. Repka who rounded out a decade to October 1968. When elections were held again the head chair in City Council Chambers was won by Mr. Elmer E. Borstad.